Evangelicalism and the Decline of American Politics

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Jan G. Linn
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , September
     2017.
     196 pages.
     $25.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781532605048.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In the past few decades, anthropologists, sociologists, and historians have published countless new popular and scholarly treatments of US American evangelicalism, giving us an increasingly complex picture of who evangelicals are and what they believe. Recently, the vast majority of new books about evangelicalism have been most concerned with trying to better understand evangelicals’ political preferences and voting patterns. In so doing, such studies have predominantly taken one of two approaches toward explaining what this thing called evangelicalism is all about: either contextualizing the emergence of the evangelical political operatives of the so-called Religious Right within the broader history of something called evangelicalism, or focusing on the determinative nature (or at least the explanatory power) of late 20th-century evangelical partisanship. One kind of account makes evangelicalism’s alignment with Republicanism seem contingent. The other kind of account makes it seem self-evident. By directly attributing an ideologically extremist turn in recent Republican politics to the influence of evangelicals and their absolutist theological beliefs, Jan G. Linn’s Evangelicalism and the Decline of American Politics falls decisively in the latter category. And, by arguing that evangelical Republicans’ aversion to compromise represents a serious threat to US American democracy, Linn’s text presents a dire warning about the dangerous implications of radical religionists’ involvement in the nation’s politics. 

Beginning with an ad hoc description of the religious beliefs that evangelicals tend to hold, Linn’s book zigzags across a smattering of federal and state-level legislative and judicial decisions from recent years, frequently pointing to signs of the “no-compromise” (1) evangelical theology underlying them. As opposed to the vast majority of the rest of the country’s citizens—whom the book regularly describes as a generally “open-minded” (30), “reasonable and accommodating” (67) lot with “amazingly balanced” (41) views on controversial social issues—evangelicals have, time and again, demonstrated that they are essentially close-minded, irrational, and intellectually dishonest. For Linn, the fact that evangelicals rail against the teaching of evolution and comprehensive sex education in public schools, gay marriage, abortion, and stem-cell research—all things which, in his estimation, most Americans support—while simultaneously ignoring issues like climate change and voter suppression, furthermore belies the arbitrary and myopic nature of their moral positions. In Linn’s telling, the problem has less to do with the illogicality of evangelicals’ beliefs, however, and more to do with the fact that they are trying to foist their private theological and ethical views onto a pluralistic society. The “bad religion” (117) of partisan evangelicalism, Linn additionally suggests, has been unfailingly translated into the “bad politics” (86) of a contemporary Republican party, which is now running roughshod over everyone else’s constitutional rights. In a disestablished and secular culture in which “absolutes hinder rather than help a society to be moral,” he argues, “evangelicalism’s intransigence on moral issues not only causes problems, but is an example of how rigidity creates havoc in the public square” (49).

Evangelicalism and the Decline of American Politics proves most successful when highlighting and critiquing the explicitly religious motivations employed by so many contemporary politicians and faith leaders as justifications for their political decisions. For a number of crucial reasons, however, Linn’s attempts at pinpointing a causal relationship between the motivations of unwavering ideologues in the Republican Party and the central theological tenets of something called evangelicalism are far less convincing. 

The fact that the book assiduously avoids clarifying what is meant by the terms “evangelicalism” and “evangelicals” is the single most significant and recurrent obstacle toward accepting its central argument. In the brief discussion of what it is that evangelicals apparently believe offered in chapter 1, Linn does highlight a few of the many ways that historians and evangelical leaders have attempted to define evangelicalism. And in books that are intended for an audience beyond specialists, avoiding excessive entanglement in scholarly definitional debates is a perfectly legitimate motivation. But when Linn points to the reported results of a single survey—as summarized in a secondary article published on a website called episcopalcafe.com—as a clear demonstration of “the basic beliefs…that define who evangelicals really are,” readers should be wary (16). The set of beliefs that Linn describes as having arisen from an “empirically based” (16) effort to gain some sort of consensus among evangelicals were not in fact determined either empirically or by consensus: they come instead from a nine-point criteria of evangelical belief developed by the Barna research group in light of the statement of faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. In addition to the somewhat haphazard early treatment of evangelical beliefs, the rest of the book is rife with generalizations and unsubstantiated claims about “evangelicals.” We are told, for instance, that Republican politicians have made decisions “at the urging of evangelical leaders” (46) or that certain legislative measures have been “urged by evangelicals” (53) without receiving any clarification as to the identity of these “evangelical leaders,” or any citation demonstrating the nature of evangelicals’ apparent urging.

The book’s all-too-frequent lack of specificity gives it an unfortunate air of condescension that, in the end, winds up ironically undercutting one of Linn’s most serious and potentially devastating charges. Evangelicals, Linn argues, “continue to spew forth hatred and spread fear in the name of God,” they “sow discord and preach prejudice,” and they are therefore “guilty of trying to create a social unrest that tears a nation apart” (110). Evangelicalism may very well bear responsibility for perpetuating an “us vs. them” mentality in U.S. American politics, precisely as Linn suggests (143). But by trading in assumptions, sweeping generalizations, and the occasional offhanded stereotype, Evangelicalism and the Decline of American Politics is often guilty of the same thing. Only this time, the “them” are the intolerant, intransigent, and close-minded “evangelicals,” and the “us” are the rest of the country’s accommodating, pragmatic, and reasonable citizens.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Sharp is a doctoral candidate in Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
May 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jan G. Linn has served as chaplain and a member of the teaching faculty at Lynchburg College in Virginia, and was professor of the practice of ministry at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky before giving up tenure to become co-pastor with his wife of a new church start in Minnesota. After fourteen years he retired to write full-time. He is the author of fifteen books, and has a widely read blog, "Thinking Against The Grain," at linnposts.com.

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